The voice of children laughter in Baan Lion woke me up that morning. I opened my eyes and looked around in my new homestay room. It was already bright outside and I smiled. Why? Because that day was the first day I did not have to wake up at 5 a.m to walk 10 km on the beach. It was my third day volunteering with Naucrates in Koh Phra Thong, Thailand.
I got ready lazily and walked to the Naucrates field station at the village. Some other volunteers were already there, and there was Barry – a Canadian researcher who spoke fluent Thai and had been helping Naucrates for the last few years. I had a good feeling that morning and asked with a big smile “Turtle tracks today?” There had not been any turtle tracks for the last few days, so the answer was probably no, but the answer that I got from Barry was surprising, “They found a turtle nest today.” Did he say turtle nest? Turtle nest!! For real? It was the first turtle nest in the season, and also the first one for the staff after walking the beach 10 km every day for the last 50 days!
Last night we had already arranged some activities for volunteers that day, but after the nest finding the schedule changed. Now everyone was too excited to check the nest. According to Mr. Thep, a Thai villager who monitored the beach every morning, the nest was too close to the sea and the eggs might have to be relocated to a safer location. So around 10.45 a.m all 6 volunteers and 2 staff went to the nest site. It was my first time seeing a track and a nest of a wild turtle. Looking at the size and patterns created on the sand, Andrea – Naucrates field leader – concluded it was a green turtle that laid the eggs. We took measurement of the track and based on the shell’s width, it was probably the same turtle who came to the shore and left a track a few days before. If I had seen a turtle nest on a beach before that day, there was no way I would thought it would have been one because it did not look like a nest at all (at least in my opinion).
Mr. Thep was right about the need to relocate the eggs as the nest was only a few meters from the sea during low tide, but according to Andrea it had to be done when the weather was cooler. The temperature that morning was over 30°C and the eggs and embryos should not be exposed to such a high temperature. So we came back to the same nest site at 5 p.m, chose a new site not far from the nest but far enough from the sea so we did not have to worry about high tide. We cleaned the new site for relocation from debris and vegetation, but then when we were ready to dig the nest and take the eggs, it started to rain heavily and we did not want to soak the eggs to the rain water too, so we waited again.
Finally the rain passed and Andrea started digging the nest, looking for the egg chamber. Within 5 minutes he reached the top of the egg chamber and we saw a couple of turtle eggs emerged out from the sand in the hole that Andrea dug.
Now here comes the tricky part: relocating the eggs. Ideally, the eggs have to be relocated to a new “nest” with minimum change during the moving, as minimum as possible. So we tried to create a new “nest” as similar as possible to the original nest. They ought to have the same measurement, dimension, and depth, as well as temperature and humidity. The egg position and their order should not change as well. Andrea took the first egg on top, carefully placed it on the sand without rotating it, then Etienne – Naucrates volunteer coordinator – carefully took the egg and put it in an egg tray that we had prepared, again without rotating it otherwise the egg would not hatch. The first egg tray was filled with turtle eggs within 10 minutes, and within the next 50 minutes, just after a stunning sunset, we’ve got 113 green turtle eggs ready to be relocated.
After taking notes of the dimension of the original nest, Andrea dug a new “nest” following the real nest dimension and together with Etienne they put the turtle eggs, one by one, in reversed order, inside the artificial egg chamber that had just been made. After all the eggs were put inside, we covered the artificial nest with sand, took its exact location with GPS and backed it up with a method called triangulation where the distance of the relocated nest to two nearest trees to form a triangle were measured.
The whole relocation progress took over two hours and we finished after dark, drenched in the rain, with feet full of sandfly bites, but we felt accomplished with the first nest relocation today. Now, we hope to see over 100 hatchlings in the next 50-60 days and more nests from the same turtle in the next two weeks!
By Liz, volunteer with Naucrates (January 16th – 31st 2016)
This was my first time in a conservation project and I would definitely recommend this experience to everyone that is looking for eco voluntering. What is it like to be a volunteer for Naucrates? Let me tell you.
Basically, we have 3 main activities which are beach monitoring, measurements of weather and tide conditions and observation. I will describe only the first and the last activity because they were my favourites.
So, every early morning we walked the three beaches of the island (splitting in two teams) to check if any sea turtle came during the night to lay eggs, in this way we can protect the nest from predators and human activity. I wasn’t lucky enought to see a nest during my stay on the island (possibly due to El Niño of last year) but I nevertheless really enjoyed walking on the beach when all is still dark because temperature is cool, everything is still quiet and so peaceful and you can watch beautiful sunrise everyday!
If you have never seen a sea turtle, the best way to see one is to go for observation shift on the hornbill hill. From there, you have a great view on a feeding area where normally only juvenile turtles come everyday. We collect data regarding their behaviour and learn to recognize the different sea turtle species. As usually same turtles are coming everyday and as they have some distinctive signs on their carapace like barnacles, we started to give them names to help us in our work. So maybe next time you will come, you might have the chance to see Barbara, Barnee or Noe!
Daily activities can sometimes be interrupted by unexpected events, it happened few times when I was there. One day we were monitoring a beach early morning when we received a call from a villager that a juvenile stranded turtle has been found on the mud next to the pier. It needed to be rescued, so we asked local people to bring us the turtle to check if it had any injury.
Once done, we had to release it to the sea but it was impossible to do it directly from the beach where we were because it is a bay and we noticed a net quite close that can possibly be a danger for the turtle and we couldn’t do it from another beach either because on that day there were too many big waves for a juvenile turtle so we had to figure out what to do. After some discussions, we decided to take kayaks and paddled out of the bay to safely release the turtle in open water.
That was so thrilling to see how fast a sea turtle can swim!
On another day, Et (a thai working for one of the resorts of the island) informed us that he saw some sea turtle tracks on Koh Ra beaches (Koh Ra is an island with 8 beaches in the north of Koh Phra Thong that we monitor as well, but only once a week because of logistics issues). When tracks are found we need to check as soon as possible if they lead to a nest. Because it was late afternoon and no boat available to take us there, we couldn’t go same day and had to wait for next morning.
We found 5 tracks on two different beaches but unfortunately no nest. For each track, we record the GPS position, the size and the position compared to the tide level and vegetation. The shape of the tracks allowed us to identify that it was a green turtle of 1m length that came 5 times on the beach. Could be Barbara which is an adult that was in the feeding area few days ago. However, we do not know why she didn’t lay eggs. Did she have any troubles? Had she been bothered?
We came back on Koh Ra few days later but no signs of her and neither on the observation area. We can only wait and see if she comes back another time on the beach. This is the tricky and interesting part of the project: we are working with wild creatures and have no power on them!
Being an eco-volunteer is not only about sea turtles it is also about participating in the life of the island by doing environmental education with children, building a relationship with local people or arranging the conservation community center. I particularly liked working with children because they are always willing to learn and I think that the younger you teach them something the easier they will remember it.
Working with kids is a good way to communicate about Naucrates project as they will be the first ones to spread to their friends or parents what they learned. So we decided to organize with the teacher and students of the school of Tapayoi (the only school on the island) a beach cleaning and a drawing session to raise awareness among wastes on the beach and consequences for marine life. The aim was to go with them on the beach with some trash bags to collect garbage and show them how much plastic/glass/styrofoam are thrown back by the sea everyday.
After this, Andrea (Naucrates field leader) explained -with the help of the teacher who was translating in thai- the negative impacts of plastic and styrofoam for sea turtles, fishes and marine life in general. We then asked the students to make two teams so that one team could draw wrongdoings such as throwing water bottles in the sea and the other team could draw good actions like spliting garbage. To finish the activity, kids drew all together a big green turtle on a black board and wrote “save turtles” next to it. It was so nice to see how interested in turtles the kids were, they really seemed to understand the stakes of the project and why we have to protect them. Andrea will definitely try to organize other activities with them during the season.
I could write a lot more about all the activities that we are doing in Koh Phra Thong such as working on the conservation community center, cooking lessons or something else, but I am sure that other volunteers would like to tell their experience as well.
What I can say is that by seeing the drastic fall down of number of nests during the last thirty years, I realized how much human activity is part of this decrease and how important is our work here to try to invert this situation. I woke up everyday during my five weeks on the island, with same motivation to walk, to find a track, a nest, to observe sea turtles behaviour, because I do strongly believe in the aim of the project.
It wasn’t easy to build a strong relationship with local people as an international NGO but Naucrates made it over the years and I felt that locals are happy to see us. We need to keep raising awareness and make them understand that they are the key of success of this project and that even small actions can help preserving the marine life/environment. I reckon that everybody can work at its own scale and from now on I will definitely pay more attention to my actions.
Finally, I found out that volunteering is a good way to spend my holidays; I can serve a good cause and discover a country from a different perspective at the same time. So my last words will be: join Naucrates and live a great adventure!